‘Nobody Speak’ director Brian Knappenberger talks Gawker, Hogan, Trump, and the not-so-free press

by Andrew Parker

Some might have found the big money civil suit that Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea brought against snarky investigative journalism outlet Gawker over a leaked sex tape to be a bit of a curiosity, but as the facts about the case started to come out and the real reason for the trial came to light, a frightening picture of how the rich and powerful are seeking to control the media at large began to emerge.

Using the Hogan/Gawker trial as a jumping-off point, filmmaker and documentarian Brian Knappenberger’s Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (premiering on Netflix this weekend) naturally and effortlessly takes on a three act structure to deep dive into issues threatening the freedom of the American press. Knappenberger (The Internet’s Own Boy, We Are Legion) gets tremendous access to both sides of the Gawker trial, but can only look at Hogan’s secret legal defense backer – billionaire internet tycoon and Gawker hater Peter Thiel – from a distance. From the Gawker trial, Knappenberger looks at how, for better and worse, sarcasm and joke culture has skewed how people look at news outlets and public figures in frighteningly different ways.

Knappenberger uses the trial as an example of how Trump’s bluster, mistrust of the media, and complete lack of accountability is leading the country towards a state of totalitarian rule, and Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press – the filmmaker’s best, thorniest, and most compicated work to date – includes plenty of reasons to be terrified. Even if you hate Gawker or don’t fully trust your local news because you don’t agree with their political bias, the evidence to suggest that media repression is just around the corner is unassailable.

We got a chance to catch up with Brian Knappenberger to talk about Nobody Speak over coffee earlier this spring when the film played at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.

I think I’ll let my own bias to some of the things in your film known up front, since it starts off by talking about the Gawker/Hulk Hogan situation. I never liked Gawker or how they framed a lot of their stories, but mostly it was just their attitude not being something that I aligned myself with. At the same time, I did find a lot of the issues brought up during the Terry Bollea trial to be quite frightening and ludicrous because they were still a news outlet that was known for actually doing research.

Brian Knappenberger: I definitely don’t think you’re alone on that, and that’s actually a pretty good place to be coming from when looking at a case like this.

When we talk about internet privacy, freedom of the press, and litigation going hand in hand, I think that if Gawker had been tried in New York or Los Angeles or any other major world city instead of in Pinellas County, Florida, a judge would have looked at both parties being in the wrong and probably would have thrown the whole thing out. Terry Bollea was and still is a local legend in Florida, possibly even moreso than he is on a worldwide level at the moment, so the deck was always unfairly stacked against Gawker. What’s it like looking at that aspect of the trial and how this unfolded geographically when it probably should have been stopped on Constitutional ground before even making it to court?

Brian Knappenberger

Brian Knappenberger: That’s such a key part of that trial and one of the things that was so fascinating to me. By the way, two federal judges DID throw this case out before the third judge took it on. The other judges deemed what Gawker discovered to be newsworthy and threw it out on First Amendment grounds. But there’s definitely something about the geography of the trial.

Part of what fascinated me was that you had this trial happening in a really important electoral state in an often hotly contested country and in front of judge who was a lawyer for Terri Schiavo who was appointed by Jeb Bush. This was a judge who was clearly coming from a particular political point of view, and the Schiavo case was a political and judicial juggernaut; one of the early political and judicial spectacles revolving around pro-life issues and the right to die with dignity. Then you have a hometown hero, a jury trial with a celebrity – which you should never agree to because you almost never beat a celebrity in a jury trial – and you have these New York media personalities – bloggers, essentially – coming down and creating an obvious culture clash.

I put the scene in the film with Hulk Hogan talking about his early days as a wrestler and how he represents a truly American success story with his “fight for the rights of every man” theme song right next to a scene of [Gawker CEO] Nick Denton talking about riding a train to Budapest to buy copied of Wired Magazine because he was a technology geek. Clearly, there was always going to be a clash happening there and that was always going to be apparent in the trial.

There was always an undercurrent of hatred towards the media; an undercurrent that said the media was out of control, and Judge Pamela Campbell actually made remarks to that effect. That was all at the beginning of this insane election cycle, and this is what hooked me. You could feel the bizarre similarities between this salacious trial that was bitterly fought in this simmering courtroom in Florida and this political spectacle we were seeing. Trump, to some degree then and now, owed his rise to that hatred and attack on the media. That trial was the beginning of that duality, and the beginning of that insane year.

You definitely make that clear when you explain how the Hogan trial was really a pawn in a nearly decade long search for revenge by billionaire Peter Thiel against Gawker. We live in a culture now where these kinds of things that would have been played out in the past in some sort of boardroom or in private getting played out in public for the sake of revenge and exposure. It becomes this escalating cycle that we’re seeing now with Trump. Someone rich and powerful will say they are going to sue because of something that was reported about them. Another media outlet will say that they have discovered something even worse about the person suing them. The whole time you have Gawker going through this trial and almost begging people to stop proving the case that in theory should save them because these other news outlets are only making things worse for their defense. It’s a maddening situation to be in. And behind the curtain, you have Thiel acting out a revenge plan that’s worthy of a Bond villain.

Brian Knappenberger: It’s true that these things, I think, are typically settled very quietly, and I definitely think that without Thiel’s money this is definitely the kind of thing that’s settled out of court or more quietly in court. There’s no doubt that if the money wasn’t there, Gawker would still be operating today. He held this nine year, Shakespearean grudge. I can’t imagine being that rich and hating something for nine years. (laughs)

The trial kind of ruined both Gawker and Hogan at the same time because had this been settled without Thiel, maybe the worst parts of the tape would never have seen the light of day because no other outlets would have leaked them out of spite and fury. They might have been leaked, but if this were settled out of court, both parties could have saved some face. I definitely got the sense from this film that Thiel kind of railroaded this whole thing into the ground for his own gain. He would feel good about it, and few people would question his funding of Bollea’s defense because he was seen as being at an arm’s length.

Brian Knappenberger: That’s very true. I think when people first found out about Thiel’s involvement in funding Hogan’s defense, he was proud of it. There’s been a backlash now, though, so that might have changed. We’re in a strange period where there’s a pretty good chance that the estate of Gawker – which is controlled by a bunch of lawyers at the moment – may sue Peter Thiel basically for tortious interference, which basically accuses Thiel of getting involved with malicious intent to destroy their business. What’s strange about that is that if that happens – and it’s so bizarre to even think this way – is that one of the technical owners of Gawker right now is Hulk Hogan, who could stand to get 45% of whatever the lawsuit gets if Gawker sells, or whatever sells that isn’t owned already by Univision. If that’s true, then the Gawker estate makes money by suing Peter Thiel, and that means that if he feels aggrieved, Hogan is now incentivized to go after the person who funded his defense in the first place, which is insane to think about. But that’s neither here, nor there. We’re in such a weird place right now. (laughs)

It’s such a confusing situation that you even have Bollea’s counsel in the film talking about how confused he was by everything that was happening, and he’s very forthcoming about his feelings and what happened. We’re you taken aback by how candid Hogan’s lawyer was when you approached him about participating in the film?

Brian Knappenberger: David Houston was great, really interesting, and one of the best tellers of this story in the film. I do think he’s being mostly honest, but it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t totally know where the money to fund the defense was coming from like he says in the film, but I think outside of that he’s being very candid. How do you not know who’s paying the bills and how do you determine there’s no conflict of interest? I do question him a bit on those grounds because that’s some weird territory. But he’s great, and the trial between Hogan and Gawker is compelling from David’s perspective because there are legitimate privacy concerns and First Amendment concerns there. It’s kind of like The People vs. Larry Flynt, and those kinds of trials involving celebrities are the ones that take everything right to the edge. This is one of those trials, and once you add the Peter Theil money – this big, secret thumb on the scale of justice – suddenly, this is very different. Still, I do have some sympathy for the Hogan case.

It was also a case where Hogan was a perfect figurehead for a trial like this. Here is a pop culture phenomenon best known for being an on-screen American hero type, but anyone just named Terry Bollea wouldn’t have had the same impact. It’s also amazing that no one uncovered Thiel’s involvement sooner because I remember thinking that Hogan – who has had plenty of failed business ventures, essentially wasn’t working much at the time of the trial, and went through an unamicable divorce not too long ago – wouldn’t have had the money to keep a trial like this going in the first place.

Brian Knappenberger: A lot of people had that feeling and were starting to wonder, and I think a major moment from the trial that made people start to question how Bollea was doing this was when the defense dropped the part of their suit that would have triggered an insurance payout, which was the causing of bodily harm, or in this case, emotional distress. When that was dropped, a lot of people questioned what the deal with that was, but that wasn’t really something that people saw as a smoking gun of any kind. No one, including the Hogan side, claims they knew anything about Thiel’s involvement until after the trial was over.

An interesting thing that links Bollea and Trump, the subjects that bookend your film, is that we seem to have gotten to a point where the media and public figures are held to different levels of accountability in the public light, specifically regarding how joking and sarcasm are used to convey sometimes dangerous beliefs and ideas. Someone like Terry Bollea can hide behind the character of Hulk Hogan. Someone like Trump can backtrack over past filmed misdeeds by saying that he was just joking and that we shouldn’t take everything he says so seriously. Gawker, which was one of the most sarcastic news outlets in the world, does the same thing, but they had researched journalism and proof on their side, and they still get in a lot more trouble than the leader of the free world. Do you think that to a certain degree that the employing of sarcasm as a conversational tool like Gawker was doing and like we have seen since then in other outlets is hurting journalism?

Brian Knappenberger: That double standard is fascinating, and such a deeply American, commercially minded thing. There’s this legal path that we talk about in the film called “puffery,” where you’re allowed to say something is the greatest car or product or whatever, and what we’re talking about here is some version of that. Terry Bollea can get up at his trial and say that he says things that are patently untrue all the time, like that he surfs on tiger sharks or that he’s base-jumped off the Empire State Building or that the pulled the bumper right off a 1950s Cadillac. Obviously that’s not true, so obviously he’s a character, and obviously he says things that aren’t true. But now, he’s not lying to you! He’s not there as Hulk Hogan. Suddenly, he’s there as Terry Bollea. Hulk Hogan isn’t hurt by this, but Terry Bollea is deeply hurt by it.

There’s a similar thing happening with Trump. He’s said misogynistic comments about women that are on record, but he says that was because he was a character on a TV series. Where’s the line when you have someone who’s running for the most powerful office in the world? At what point can you call bullshit? At what point will Trump actually own what he says? With Hogan, that’s a lot more clear because he has a wrestling persona and that there are characters involved and it’s not a real thing. With Trump, yes, he was on a TV show, but he was also literally being himself. The character is that he’s a great businessman and deal maker. That was the point of Trump’s show. If that’s the defense, then reporters should be able to do the same thing and call out their bullshit.

We’re trying to figure out what’s real and what’s truthful, and everyone is making it harder. Journalism is in a weird place because it’s losing revenue sources, and it’s struggling to becoming something new. It needs to find new ways of doing investigative journalism and finding new ways of protecting itself when it goes up against people who might want to punch back or destroy them. That version is not born yet, and while that’s struggling to be born, we have a president that’s just hammering at journalistic rights left and right. Just yesterday [White House Chief of Staff] Reince Priebus admitted that they were looking into ways to amend the First Amendment, and that is absolutely insane. That is 100% pure authoritarianism. There’s no other definition of it. Trump tries to wrap it up by saying that the media does some terrible things and makes up news, but however they want to dress it up, that is authoritarianism.

There are lots of different media players now. There are social media mavens. There are bloggers. There are bots. There are political websites being funded by dark money being funneled through political groups. There are activists like WikiLeaks and activists like Julian Assange. There are hackers who look for leaks. There are people who are manipulating these hacks to fit their own views and opinions. We are in an information war, and the challenge now is trying to navigate that war and fight on the side of truth and on the side of speaking truth to power.

One of the things you chronicle in the film that parallels the Hogan trial, is the story of a Nevada newspaper that was bought out by a group backed by one of the outlet’s biggest critics. One of the editors you interviewed from that paper said something very poignant, which is that there are some stories that are worth losing your job over, and that’s an important thing that I think most journalists need to realize. I don’t think the Hogan trial with Gawker was anything to lose a job over, but I think the Nevada situation in your film is.

Brian Knappenberger: Totally. And look, I mean, we’ve had a long history of having a raucous press, which is a great thing on some levels. The truth is that so much worse has been said about Hulk Hogan, Peter Thiel, and even Donald Trump, and we’ve somehow survived, maybe because of that. Not everyone is going to like it, but the First Amendment provides protection for a wide range of speech. Without that, you just don’t have a democracy. That doesn’t mean everyone is going to agree with you. That doesn’t mean everything is going to be nice and clean. It doesn’t mean no one is going to dispute anything. Democracy, by nature, is loud and aggressive and sometimes messy. We’re at a point now where we need to stand up for real journalism and those who are great at what they do. We should support them monetarily and maybe even more importantly through defending the concept of journalism and why it’s important. It is important for a participatory democracy for all of its people to be informed and never forget that in this world of chaos.

Finally, you were making this film during the election cycle, and you finished it right around the same time that Trump was elected. How did the election change the direction of the film?

Brian Knappenberger: It was very dramatic for me, more emotionally, actually. I actually thought that Trump was going to win for most of last year. I did this see-saw thing, though, and part of me towards the election thought that after the debates and all the news that Clinton would pull it out in the end. It was tough not to believe the polls, but I did take Trump seriously. Trump was in the film the whole time, but I’ll never forget the day that he was elected. Everyone came into the office, some of them with tears in their eyes. Even walking to work that day wasn’t the same. People were digesting this new reality. I’ll never forget watching the film that morning, and it felt like a radically different film than the one I had been making twenty-four hours before. It wasn’t even a structural change, really. It just felt like a different film from the music to the tone. Things that seemed cautionary went to becoming reality. That’s something I’ve never experienced as a filmmaker, but it was a vibrant place to be to understand your work and how it can shift in an instant.

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